The pandemic has disrupted our lives and routines in many ways and presented challenges and opportunities for the field of early childhood Jewish education. While the impact of the pandemic is not monolithic, each educator has had to grapple with the complications and effects of pandemic life.
During this challenging year, thirteen early childhood Jewish educators and professionals from Israel, UK, USA and Turkey have been meeting regularly. Together, we explore the ecosystem of early childhood Jewish education, the relationships within the system and their effect on our practices and the children we raise. In a recent meeting, we discussed the impact of the Covid-19 pandemic on our practices, the children and educators, the families and our communities. The following reflections consider how adaptations challenged assumptions and core professional practice and generated implications for the future.
Better Attunement to Students' Needs
The challenges of virtual learning and pandemic-driven constraints provoked an examination of beliefs around best practices and children’s needs. For example, without undermining the challenges during the early closures many programs experienced, the virtual experience elicited new ways of thinking about young children's self-directed explorations and creativity. These observations and insights continue to inform educators’ perspectives back in the classroom.
One England-based participant described how, at home, young children were exposed to fewer materials when tasked with an activity. However, their creativity, individuality and problem-solving skills were at work when the expectations were less prescriptive. This educator professed that “when they weren't given as much, they did more.”
Another member from England echoed these sentiments as she confronted pre-pandemic ideas about “formal work” once back in the classroom. She asserted, “It is better to just be with the children and have that social interaction because that is what they need.” The group described how they became more aware of the needs of young children in nuanced ways due to the context of the pandemic on children’s lives and routines.
Similarly, an American participant shared that the main effect of the restrictions within the school was the importance of “not rushing.” Prior to the pandemic, her program supported a busy schedule with guests leading different activities, such as music, yoga and swim. But as “nobody came into school,” the children and teachers did not spend much of the day rushing from one place to the other. With an open schedule, this educator was “more focused on the needs of the children.” Overall, there was a shift from prescriptive approaches to the prioritizing of individual children's interests, capacities and needs.
Another phenomenon that challenged normative practices for many were changes to pick-up and drop-off routines. Drop-off is often an opportunity to invite families into the program and ensure that young children and their grownups have space and time to separate with as much comfort as possible. While this practice is informed by our knowledge of child development and interrelated beliefs about attachment, safety and family partnerships, the pandemic restrictions obviated the normative practice for families to enter the building.
However, educators reveled in the positive impact of these changes. One expressed that without the children’s grownups present, drop-off was “more about the teacher and child.” This was emphasized by those in the group who reflected that drop-off was “smoother” because children are “happy and engaged with the teachers instead of [with separation from] their parents.” As such, necessary changes allowed educators to challenge assumptions and norms that produced new ways of viewing routines for the future. One Israeli highlighted this paradigm shift: “I used to think it was nice for parents to come into the gan (preschool), but now kids come in… so much better for the kids. We start the day and they are not thinking about the parents the whole time.”
Family Participation: Opportunities and Constraints
Technology complicated many teaching practices and relationships, particularly with families. As such, it was viewed both as a constraint and a mechanism for flexibility and accessibility. The reliance on technology carries various equity considerations that demand attention. Not all families have access to the internet or have the necessary devices for full participation. Furthermore, some explained how religious outlooks about internet use clashed with many of the new norms of communication and teaching, or that some families were concerned about their young children leaving a virtual footprint.
In terms of its inclusive potential, Zoom was a useful tool for incorporating multiple members of the family. One England-based professional shared that storytimes for the children in the class evolved into family affairs. Family members were able to “Zoom in” to important school programming. Another in England detailed an incredibly successful virtual family drop-in that led to discussions in the group about how to best support and include families in the future. The power of technology opened doors to facilitate a connection in a time of isolation.
Indoor and Outdoor Space
Just as educators experienced both restrictions and options due to technology, some discussed how adaptation was impacted by space and environment. One described how their program, which already valued and prioritized outdoor play, was well equipped to meet the demands of the pandemic restrictions. As classes ventured through more outdoor play, they noticed the positive influence on both the children and the faculty.
However, others reflected on their limited outdoor space and limited building and classroom space. One American shared about their creativity in moving around the large building and how the young children were flexible in this process. Others discussed the few options they had for moving outside of the classroom, constraining their flexibility to address and reconsider practice in response to pandemic considerations.
Space plays a central role in both challenging and supporting practices with young children and families. As the participants engaged in a deeper exploration about space, the environment and its role in practice, a more nuanced understanding of each other’s context emerged.
Implications for the Future
During the pandemic, educators, children and families all experienced and learned the importance of adaptation. Educators discussed trying new things, experimenting, assessing the outcomes and collaborating with others. These are important skills that children and their teachers often employ and will continue to use throughout their lives. It was within the need to change that inventive approaches emerged.
These participants revealed the ingenuity of early childhood Jewish educators as they faced the impact of the Covid-19 pandemic on practice. Their openness and reflective skills were showcased as they reexamined values, goals and beliefs about young children, professionalism and families. For some, the pandemic caused few changes to their programs. For others, the pandemic led to grave interruptions to children’s and faculty’s daily routines and interactions.
New Best Practices
The extreme, new reality that the pandemic created forced us to change our practices. There was no book or theory to guide us through this process. In some ways, it empowered the educators to take responsibility, ask many questions, experiment and make choices that fit the children with whom they work and their communities. How do we take these lessons and experiences to inform future practices and relationships? What will “stick” and challenge what we once assumed was “best practice”?
While the major takeaway for all was that “children are amazing,” reinforcing the importance of investing in young children and “being present” with them, several questions arose about how these experiences will continue to impact professional roles and practices. The lockdowns and new classroom needs created urgency to reflect on the impact on educators. One teacher expressed that during lockdown, she was “on all the time”; the work never stopped, and boundaries were blurry. We must ask, how do we go beyond lauding educators to ensure that they are valued and compensated for their expertise and time?
The following is a list of questions based on these reflections and realizations concerning the long-term impact on professional practice that was shared back to the group.
- How will these global perspectives on “being less prescriptive” reinforce the need to question assumptions about expectations and interactions with young children?
- How will new insights about drop-off impact future program policies, and how will this be communicated to the families?
- How will the inclusive practices afforded by Zoom lead to new programming approaches towards family partnerships?
- How will the reliance on technology continue to inform how we address issues of equity?
- How will we use important contextual factors like space to further reflect on our work with young children?
- How will we disseminate newly curated resources to support each other across geographical location and program type?